As a kind of “festival of festivals,” the Viennale is one of the most esteemed fixtures in the world-cinema circuit. Positioned at the back end of October, the festival is able to showcase the strongest titles that have previously premiered elsewhere. Two such titles spotlighted during its 51st edition rank among the year’s finest films: Albert Serra’s Story of My Death, which I’d seen three times in four days at Locarno in August, and Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, an altogether different kind of epic that was also shot on digital. Telling the simple tale of a Taiwanese family’s spiral into homelessness and despair, the film manages to be emotionally and intellectually engaging despite and because of its characters’ teasingly suggestive backstory. It boasts one arresting image after another, its unusual camera angles showing people trudging through some of the most strikingly disorienting architectural or other spaces since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and it’s boosted mightily by Lee Kang-sheng’s central performance. As a father of two who makes his living by standing at a crossroads every day holding an advertisement, Lee is an intense ball of simmering hurt.
Two scenes in particular stand out: one in which Lee’s character gives a burningly angered rendition of a poem while at work (“I launch a shrill cry to the heavens”), and one in which he returns home inebriated to find the cabbage that his children have adopted as a surrogate mother—smothering, attacking, and devouring the vegetable before breaking down in heartbreak. It’s a daring and mysterious scene, one whose initially comic absurdity only contributes to the tragedy that lies beneath, as we witness that painful moment when a man belatedly realizes how far he’s fallen from dignity.
Among the few stinkers at Viennale was Joys of Cádiz, the first film in three decades by Gonzalo García Pelayo following a lengthy spell as a professional gambler. A film-within-a-film, it throws everything—intertitles, on-screen text, detached voiceover, a recurrent Greek chorus, and so on—at the wall in the hope, presumably, that something will stick. Whether misjudged as a comedy about filmmaking, or all over the place as an essay film about Cádiz, it resembles at points Godard’s In Praise of Love, though the comparison is unfavorable. As both a faux-documentary on the making of a romantic film set in Cádiz and an actual documentary on the eponymous Spanish city, Pelayo’s film casts four women playing versions of a character they are auditioning for, and unfolds like a DVD feature on rehearsals for (or outtakes from) the most melodramatic of soap operas. Despite an absorbingly musical final half-hour, though, Joys of Cádiz’s biggest problem is that it feels like the product of an old pervert, ogling over beautiful local women to such an extent that you come away wondering if the only joys to be found in Cádiz are its girls.
Another film-within-a-film, Raya Martin and Mark Peranson’s La Última Película reworks and homages Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie to such an in-jokey degree that it feels like a prolonged prank that nobody else is in on, but it was preferable to Alberto Gracia’s egregious The Fifth Gospel of Kaspar Hauser. An opaque 65-minute take on the story of the eponymous 19th-century German who claimed to have been brought up in an isolated cell, the film feels twice its length due to a series of unfunny and incomprehensible sketches involving a dwarf in a gimp suit (of course!) and someone dressed as Adam West’s Batman (of course!), punctuated by numbered chapters that count down in what suggests a misjudged parody of a Peter Greenaway film.
Learning that The Fifth Gospel had won the FIPRESCI prize at Berlinale earlier this year baffled me nearly as much as La Jungla Interior, Juan Barrero’s diaristic attempt to capture the time between a child’s conception and its birth. Taking self-indulgence to new levels, the film makes its audience sit through a cum shot, a woman’s labor pains, and a dribbling vagina before having the gall to evoke The Tree of Life by juxtaposing an image of the newborn against images of nature, complete with a voiceover ruminating on the meaning of life and other banalities. Suffice it to say, Malick this isn’t.
Some of the strongest works at the Viennale this year were nonfiction. Sto Lyko, by Christina Koutsospyrou and Aran Hughes, documents life among a group of goatherds and shepherds living under perpetually gray skies in a remote region of Greece. These people endure their country’s economic collapse with resignation and despair, and in its final moments, the film upends its nonfiction framework with an impossibly bleak but artfully arranged scenario that appears like a hard-hitting intervention, as if its makers are taking Greece’s objective plight to its logical and terrifying conclusion.
While Sto Lyko reportedly began as an improvised DIY project, Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran’s From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf is fashioned almost entirely from footage taken on cellphones by Indian and Pakistani sailors between the Gulfs of Kutch and Persia. Though it unfolds in fragments, the film accumulates a picture of life at sea from frontline perspectives, which gives it a gruelling, authentic edge that recalls—in form, if not theme—last year’s Babylon, the Tunisian documentary that premiered at FIDMarseille 2012 (one year prior to Gulf to Gulf to Gulf doing so), which might suggest a growing trend in documentary filmmaking, to get subjects actively participating in the production process.
Exploring a particular culture by paying close attention to the minutiae that define it, both Sto Lyko and Gulf to Gulf to Gulf fit within that emerging trend of ethnographic cinema. At the forefront of such trends right now is Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose talented bunch of filmmakers includes J.P. Sniadecki and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and whose collected works filled a special retrospective at this year’s festival. The most recent product of the SEL is Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana, an absorbing, durational piece that consists of five ascents and five descents of a cable car up to and down from a sacred temple in the Nepal Valley (with an intermission involving the transportation of goats).
This structuralist work is up there with the SEL’s finest achievements to date (Leviathan, Foreign Parts, Sweetgrass), thanks in large part to its commitment to and fulfilment of a simple concept beguilingly shot, and to the rumbling, drone-line, somehow musical quality of Ernst Karel’s sound design. Karel might not have an equal at the moment: His rich soundscapes heighten films that might otherwise be mistaken as primarily visual works. In fact, the most unique “screening” at the Viennale this year wasn’t a screening at all: Karel’s Swiss Mountain Transport Systems, a stereo recording spatialized especially for the festival’s Metro Cinema venue, which played in a darkened auditorium with a deep, evocative purr.
Viennale ran October 24—November 6.